The Rookie Aviator: What Flying Taught Me About Safety Leadership

Years ago when I was a fledgling Student Naval Aviator working to earn my “wings of gold” I learned about a very simple principle that makes airplanes do what they do. This principle (presumably developed decades earlier, but articulated by the Navy’s Training Command) is known as Power, Attitude, Trim (or P.A.T.). This principle is timeless, and applies to nearly every fixed-wing aircraft. Little did I realize that the P.A.T. principle would later teach me a valuable lesson about safety management and safety leadership. P.A.T. is pretty simple:

Power: The energy that moves the aircraft forward. 

Attitude: The position of the aircraft in relation to the horizon (where the aircraft is pointing).

Trim: A system for fine-tuning the control surfaces to relieve the control forces required by the pilot. A properly trimmed aircraft is easier to fly and can reduce fatigue levels on the pilot.

Okay, so how does P.A.T. relate to safety management or safety leadership?

Power: As leaders in our organizations we all possess some form of power. This is often positional power (because of a hierarchical level in the organization, which provides authority) and influential power (because of our ability to win the hearts and minds of seniors, subordinates, peers, and team members). Just like a superhero this power should be used for good. 

Attitude: The way leaders view operations and safety in their organizations. Attitude is the way leaders go about the day-to-day activities of ensuring safety is inculcated into the organization as a continuous process and as a value (not just a program or temporary, isolated activity).

Trim: The process of making fine-tuned adjustments to a properly implemented safety management system. To use a term from High-Reliability Organizations theory (HRO), this might be referred to as a form of “sensitivity to operations” (Weick and Sutcliffe) where leaders examine the work that is being done and make adjustments along the way. Trim is the way leaders keep their safety management system on track, detect operational drift, and take appropriate action to correct impending failures. Trim also helps align operations and safety so they work in harmony to facilitate achievement of organizational goals. Like trimming an aircraft, trimming operations and safety in an organization is a process of constant fine-tuning, which can relieve the overwhelming pressure of an out-of-alignment safety management system.

When I first learned to fly I struggled with implementing the P.A.T. principle, and it is understandable that applying the P.A.T. principle to safety leadership and management requires constant effort. However, just like in flying, the constant effort pays off, with an improved ability to control the aircraft (and in organizations, with an improved ability to actively manage safety).

This reminds me of a comment I used to teach my young student aviators, “Fly the airplane, don’t let the airplane fly you.”  With that comment I was trying to explain the need to be proactive, rather than reactive. So, in our organizations, it is far better to actively manage safety rather than letting safety manage us when a mishap forces us to react. How can you apply the P.A.T. principle today and every day?

Thanks for reading, and have a great and safe week!


Weick, Karl E. , and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe. Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in the Age of Uncertainty. 2nd. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2007. Print.